China-India Brief #104

Published Twice a Month
October 24 – November 14, 2017

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

India and China: Getting strategy and timing right

by Joe Thomas Karackattu

India and China: Getting strategy and timing right 

The Doklam (Dong Lang in Chinese) standoff that ended in August this year has created a strategic trap where current policy choices increase the possibility, intensity, and duration of the next possible standoff. After the two-month standoff, India withdrew its soldiers from the site, with China reciprocating by clearing the road construction equipment.

While the matter was resolved through mutual agreement, both sides are claiming success. China resumed patrolling in the area claiming to safeguard its “territorial sovereignty,” while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described this incident at a recent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers’ meeting in Bengaluru as proof of the "bravery of Indian soldiers” and India's “diplomatic prowess.”

Doklam lies in the cleavage that separates Sikkim from Bhutan and is regarded as a sensitive and strategic geographic intersection.  Historically, Doklam was used by the Dalai Lama as refuge in 1951 following the Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet, and roughly half a century prior to that, the British ‘invasion’ of Lhasa under Francis Younghusband commenced from this stretch of land.

The contention of the main actors is as follows: Indian soldiers crossed over the boundary to halt Chinese road construction in the funnel stretch from Batang La to Gyemochhen. According to India, Batang La is located at the trijunction of India, China, and Bhutan.

Bhutan’s press release at the time of the incident did not mention anything about the trijunction or the Indian Army, but noted that Chinese road construction inside “Bhutanese territory” was in violation of agreements between China and Bhutan, which refrained either side from taking unilateral action or the use of force to change the boundary’s status quo. Doklam, incidentally, was one of the disputed areas as listed by the National Assembly of Bhutan in 1995, and was part of a proposed package deal between China and Bhutan since 1996.

India claimed its action were sanctioned under an interpretation of the 2007 Friendship Treaty between Bhutan and India. While the treaty is otherwise fairly detailed on issues such as extradition, trade, commerce, and cultural contacts, the text doesn't explicitly mention anything specific on defending Bhutan.

In its press release, India’s Ministry of External Affairs noted that Chinese construction represented a “significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.” China maintains that Indian actions violated international law, since the 1890 Convention between Britain and China clearly defines the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet. Furthermore, the construction work was in an area that the Chinese claim as theirs and that any disagreement on this was for Bhutan and China to resolve.

Separating fact from fiction

The 1890 Convention arose from the British wanting to regulate matters relating to the frontier and trade with Tibet, owing to ingressions on Sikkim by the Tibetans who were unwilling to cooperate with the British. The 1890 definition of the boundary was not delimited, and there were serious difficulties in having it demarcated for the next eight years.

The stalemate resulted in a punitive British military expedition to Lhasa in 1903-04, who managed to occupy the Chumbi valley – the area of the present-day standoff – until February 1908. The stalemate was not resolved even after 1912, when Chinese control of Tibetan districts bordering Sikkim was lost following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Clearly, the demarcation efforts of the 1890 boundary were abortive and not definitive as China claims.

On Gyemochhen (or Gipmochi per the 1890 Convention), India’s official position is that Chinese construction efforts in Doklam implies a unilateral determination of the trijunction between India, China, and Bhutan, which is in violation of a 2012 ‘understanding’ India had with China. China has not contested this ‘understanding’.

It is interesting to note, however, that China’s position on Gyemochhen as the trijunction mirrors other records published after 1890 – including The Gazetteer of Sikkim (reprinted 1989) as well as Treaties, Engagements and Sanads (1931) by CU Aitchison, then the undersecretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department. It appears that the trijunction issue has more to do with the notion of a strategic boundary (India’s claim) versus a treaty boundary (China’s claim), which are incompatible with each other.

Bhutan’s position on its boundary with China only complicates the matter further. Official transcripts of the National Assembly debates are conspicuously absent on the issue of Gamochen (or Gipmochi) as the starting point of the Bhutan-China boundary in the west – where the current conflict is located. Instead, they mention the claim in Doklam as starting from Batang La. However, two online sources, namely Les Amis du Bhoutan and a 2004 study by renowned Himalayan studies scholar and French diplomat Thierry Mathou on the Centre for Bhutan Studies’ website, contradict this account.

Both online sources cited a story from the Bhutanese official newspaper Kuensel published on July 5th 2002, which notes that the 80th National Assembly debated four disputed areas with China, “starting from Doklam in the west the border goes along the ridges from Gamochen to Batangla, Sinchela, and down to the Amo Chhu.” “Gamochen”, incidentally, is the Bhutanese name usage for Gyemochhen and is not a typographical error.

The original Kuensel story cannot be located online now. However, Mathou has confirmed the veracity of the story which his study cited with this author. This happened amidst whispers of a blossoming Bhutan-China friendship is corroborated by the resolution adopted at the 80th National Assembly: “If the friend in the south could not be depended upon then the neighbour in the north should not be forgotten.”

Of winners and whiners

Purely in terms of evaluating actions and outcomes, China managed to compel India to undo its action of sending troops across the Sikkim border, i.e. withdrawal from the faceoff site. However, going by the sequence of events, it seems the Chinese promised to halt the road construction on that site, at least for now.

Clearly, China’s tactic of issuing threats through its media outlets failed to force a change in Indian behaviour.  The Chinese had to deliver on their promise of clearing road construction equipment and restoring the status quo. Sometime during the process, the definition of “success” changed for both parties.

For China, the takeaway from the standoff is that using threats without following through has its own reputational costs. Likewise, for India, sending troops to an area it does not claim has been an amorphous strategy, especially because deterrence would be better achieved by involving the Bhutanese. That coordination with Bhutan was absent shows that Indian efforts at diplomatic understanding with Thimphu needs rethinking. It is with these lessons that all three countries return to the mountains for another round of Chinese checkers.


Joe Thomas Karackattu is Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. He was chosen as one of the ‘Emerging Scholars’ from India by the India China Institute at The New School, New York for his research on the history of boundary making between India and China, which appears in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Cambridge University Press, 2017).


The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.


News Reports

Bilateral relations


Arunachal is our territory, others' views don't matter: Sitharaman to China
Business Standard, November 12
Arunachal Pradesh is Indian territory and the opinion of others on the issue is not a concern for India, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said. Sitharaman visited a forward army post in Arunachal Pradesh on November 5 to take stock of the defence preparedness and the situation along the Line of Actual Control. China reacted angrily to the visit, saying the visit to the "disputed" region would not be conducive to peace on the border. Asked if the issue of giving shelter to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees was a bone of contention in India-China relations, the minister said every issue has its own "weight".

India, China Likely To Hold Border Talks Next Month
NDTV, November 10
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the 20th round of the India-China Special Representatives border talks will be held in "due course" but declined to give a schedule. Officials, however, say both the border talks and the RIC meeting were expected to be held next month in New Delhi. The 20th round of border talks will be the first after the recent 73-day long Dokalam standoff between the two countries, and will be held between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China's State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who are the designated Special Representatives.

Shashi Tharoor says relations with Pakistan at 'pretty bad low,' ties with China 'not much better'
First Post, November 5
The parliamentary committee on external affairs plans to submit a comprehensive report on Sino-Indian ties next year, and is currently looking at the "extremely topical" Doka La issue, panel chairman Shashi Tharoor has said. Tharoor said the panel wanted to take a comprehensive look at the India-China ties by understanding their trade and political relations, cooperation in international bodies and the Chinese attitude on India's membership bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, on terrorism and Pakistan among other aspects.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit India in December, say officials
The Hindu, October 29
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will travel to Delhi in December to attend the Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers’ trilateral meeting, according to Chinese official sources. He will also hold talks with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj and meet India’s top leadership. Media reports previously said the RIC meeting was planned for April, but Mr Wang did not confirm dates in the backdrop of China’s protests over the Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh in the same month. Mr Wang’s visit is regarded significant as it would set the tone for Xi Jinping’s policy approach towards India in his second term as president.

News Reports

China and India in the Regions

ASEAN Summit: Eye on China as India joins quadrilateral with US, Australia & Japan
The Indian Express, November 13
With an eye on China’s activities in the region, India on Sunday said that the first meeting of its officials in Manila with those from the US, Australia and Japan — described as the “quadrilateral” — agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large”. Sunday’s discussions, chaired by Japanese officials, took place hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump landed in the afternoon for the ASEAN summit which begins Monday.

India, Bhutan hold discussions on New Delhi's assistance for Thimphu's 12th Five-Year plan
First Post, November 11
India and Bhutan initiated discussions on Indian assistance for the 12th five-year plan (2018-2023) for the socio-economic development of the Himalayan nation, during the annual bilateral development cooperation talks. This came nearly two-and-a-half months after the "disengagement" between Indian and Chinese troops on 28 August near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction in the Doka La area. Over 675 projects, including 595 small development projects, have been implemented in Bhutan during the 11th plan period.

US defends use of 'Indo-Pacific' over 'Asia-Pacific', says it reflects India's rise
Channel NewsAsia, November 6
A senior Trump administration official has defended its increasing use of the phrase "Indo-Pacific" over "Asia-Pacific", saying it captures "the importance of India's rise" during a media briefing on Sunday. The official said that the US views India as an increasingly important security partner, adding that the country is "conceptually the western edge of the Indo-Pacific region; the United States making up the eastern edge of that". He stressed that "long-standing" ties with India is not about containing China.

Report: India thinks China's nuke coop with Pakistan violates its NSG commitment 
Economic Times, November 6
A joint report by Russian International Affairs Council and Vivekananda International Foundation said that India was concerned over China's reported nuclear ties with Pakistan. "This includes civil nuclear cooperation that in India's view violates China's commitments as a Nuclear Suppliers Group member," it said. The report added that apart from creating markets for its excess capacity in certain sectors, India sees China's expansion into Eurasia as a counter to the US pivot towards the Asia-Pacific.


News Reports

Trade and Economy

Beyond Beijing, Taiwan looks to India
The Telegraph, November 13
Over the last three decades, Taiwan has helped to build two formidable manufacturing empires in the world: in China and in Southeast Asia. As the tides of trade change in China, it is eyeing a new frontier in India. There are signs of change already. During the first nine months of this year, bilateral trade has soared 35 per cent. The initiative is largely seen as a counter measure to reduce the Taiwan economy's dependence on mainland China as the ruling DPP party tries to curve out an independent course for the island.

India-China should join hands for better trade, says Alibaba even as calls to boycott Chinese goods get louder
International Business Times, November 11
About 20 Indian start-ups and 150 Chinese investors met at the Indian government's first start-up event held at the Indian Embassy in Beijing and discussed ways to invest in each other's businesses and its benefits. Lauding the start-up event, Benny Chen, who leads the India and Global Strategic Alliance division at Ant Financial- Alibaba's financial services affiliate, said that India is important to the region in terms of trade and the neighbouring nation was the next big thing for numerous Chinese firms.

Connectivity should be open and equitable: India on China's 'One Belt One Road' project
Times Now, October 28
Maintaining its position on joining China's ambitious 'One Belt One Road' (OBOR) initiative, India's External Affairs Ministry asserted that though India supported connectivity, it should be open and equitable. This remark came a day after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in Beijing told reporters, "We welcome other countries including India to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the basis of voluntarism." New Delhi had boycotted a high-profile OBOR forum organised by China in May.


News Reports

Energy and Environment

India is overtaking China as the biggest emitter of this deadly air pollutant
Quartz, November 10
According to a University of Maryland-led study published in Nature on November 9, China’s SO2 emissions have fallen 75% since 2007, while India’s emissions have increased 50% in the same period. That puts India on track to overtake China, the world’s largest SO2 emitter since 2005. While China has been particularly aggressive in recent years in trying to curb its notorious air pollution, India has been on a building spree to put up more coal-fired power plants in recent years.

India, not China, will lead future demand for energy
CNN, November 7
India will need more additional energy to fuel its economy between now and 2040 than any other country, according to OPEC. It's the first time that India has topped China as the primary driver of energy demand. However, "this change in the leading position is primarily the result of the downward revisions made for China... rather than a more positive outlook for India," OPEC said in its World Oil Outlook 2040. China is forecast to need less energy than previously thought as it is making big moves toward renewable sources.



Can a ‘diamond of democracies’ in the Indo-Pacific counter an expansionist China?, November 13
This week’s meetings in Manila are likely to see the official announcement of a quadrilateral dialogue, with further moves for Australia to join the security trilateral that already exists between India, Japan and the US. If the quadrilateral is indeed formalised this week, it will conclude a process that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe himself attempted to start 10 years ago. The key test for this expected quadrilateral, which hopes to re-align power in the region, will depend on how each of these nations responds to what is likely to be predictable provocation from Beijing in response.

Indian Ocean conflict must be avoided
Myanmar Times, November 13
Despite not being a littoral state of the Indian Ocean, China has long relied on it as a crucial source of resources. More importantly, it plays a crucial part in the success of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Yet China’s actions have drawn the concern of many in the region, most notably that of India. Beijing had previously stated how the Indian Ocean will not be India’s backyard. The most important thing to keep in mind is that alienation will lead nowhere. This is especially true of India’s stance toward China – by alienating perceived ‘competition,’ it limits and can jeopardise any form of fruitful cooperative dialogue.

Xi Jinping 2.0: Making China Great Again
Swarajya, November 12
To the world, the message emerging from the 19th Communist Party congress is very clear. China has arrived on the world stage. The ‘New Era’ will witness a confident China, which will actively try to influence and shape the global order. A resurgent China is also likely to pose hurdles to long term Sino-Indian relations. The recent Doklam stand-off and heightened rhetoric at that time showed signs of how future conflicts could unravel. Mutual distrust and lack of understanding of what China and India entail in each other’s strategic calculus have further driven animosity between the two.

Competition, cooperation exemplify China-India ties
Global Times, November 6
Since Modi took office, the Sino-India economic and trade relationship has largely been a microcosm of India's overall economic performance. China's investment in India has increased rapidly, but India's exports have remained sluggish, and the country still has a large trade deficit with China. If India cannot adjust its industrial structure in a timely manner, then the closer its trade relationship with China becomes, the bigger the trade deficit with China will be, and that can easily be used as an excuse for promoting extreme nationalism by some political forces in India.

India is not about to play the US game of rivalry with China
South China Morning Post, November 5
Indians chafe at the suggestion that China’s growing power is why the US sees value in ties with India. India doesn’t want its relationship to depend on the intensity of the US’ competition with China. India’s external diplomacy is heavily invested in realism, meaning it will always focus on its own immediate and long-term interests. Even if it is interested, India cannot afford to be part of a policing arrangement in this huge region. Furthermore, India has no illusions about who will bear the burden and pay the price if it joins in any containment agreement, as espoused by the Americans and Japanese.

Why China can’t be India’s friend
Dailyo, November 4
China for the fourth time blocked India, the US and other nations’ bid to list Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Given China and Pakistan’s close ties, this should hardly be a surprise. China’s support for the BRICS declaration on terrorism was merely a tactical ploy to make the summit a success given New Delhi’s categorical stand on the issue, but its long-term strategic interest has always been to build Pakistan as an equal to India to block New Delhi’s ascent globally. With its recent action on Masood Azhar’s case, China has once again made it clear that it doesn’t see good Sino-Indian relations as a priority.


Books and Journals

China, India and Southeast Asia: Paths to development and state-society relations
Routledge, December 2017
Edited by Edmund Terence Gomez,‎ Cheong Kee Cheok and Vamsi Vakulabharanam

Edmund Terence Gomez is Professor of Political Economy at the Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malaya, Malaysia. Cheong Kee Cheok is Research Associate at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia. Vamsi Vakulabharanam is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.

This volume studies the outcomes of the two-way flow of investments and people between China and India, and Southeast Asia. These cross-border flows have led to new settlements in Southeast Asia from which new outlooks have emerged among locally-born generations that have given rise to new forms of solidarity and identification. The advent of new generations of ethnic Chinese and Indians in Southeast Asia, with no ties to China or India, has spawned important debates about identity shifts which have not been registered by government leaders in Southeast Asia, China and India, as reflected in policy statements and investment patterns. Identity changes are assessed in forms where they best manifest themselves: in social life and in business ventures forged, or unsuccessfully nurtured, through tie-ups involving foreign and domestic capital. A state-society distinction is employed to determine how the governments of these rapidly developing countries envision development, through state intervention as well as with the employment of highly entrepreneurial ethnic groups, and the outcomes of this on their societies and on their economies.


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